Croatia gut out round-of-16 tie with Denmark on penalties to reach quarterfinals
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- Three quick thoughts from Croatia's 3-2 penalty shootout win over Denmark, after the pair finished 120 minutes level at 1-1 in their round-of-16 tie.
1. Croatia gut out attritional last-16 tie
This is called gutting it out. Croatia were stunned inside 60 seconds by an early Danish aerial assault as Jonas Knudsen's whipped throw-in reached Thomas Delaney, who simply screened the ball and left it to Mathias Jorgensen to poke it home. They found the equaliser almost straight away, with a spot of luck, as a Danish clearance ricocheted off Andreas Christensen and at the feet of Mario Mandzukic. Then, for 112 minutes, we had a war of attrition.
In a World Cup that has seen so many upsets, the possibility of Croatia -- who maybe didn't enter as favourites but surely appeared at this point -- making early exit seemed palpable.
But then Luka Modric, caught in the Danish cobweb for long stretches, drove a through-ball into the final third and the roadrunner, Ante Rebic, latched on to it, running full tilt at Kasper Schmeichel and putting him on his backside with a little swerve. Just as Rebic was about to shoot, Jorgensen caught him from behind with the ultimate desperation tackle. Referee Nestor Pitana pointed to the spot. Up stepped Modric and up stepped Schmeichel, and the yellow-clad netminder extend to swat away the penalty.
It was the sort of cruel miss that leaves you empty, shattered. Four minutes later, we went on to penalties. Modric looked paler than ever, like he had seen all three ghosts of Christmas in one go. But that's why superstars have teammates.
Danijel Subasic saved penalties from Christian Eriksen, Lasse Schone and Nicolai Jorgensen. Schmeichel could only do the same to Milan Badelj and Josip Pivaric. (In case you're wondering, Modric, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, had no compunction about taking -- and converting -- his penalty.) It was left to Ivan Rakitic, and Schmeichel was beaten.
Croatia sail on to a quarterfinal date with Russia by the Black Sea in Sochi. Denmark go home heads held high.
2. Denmark neutralised Croatia's midfield advantage
Having four hugely gifted central midfielders means making choices because, absent a diamond, you're only going to play three. Zlatko Dalic opted for Modric, Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic, with Mateo Kovacic initially on the bench. Three central midfielders of that nature -- essentially three high-end jacks-of-all trade -- is a classic double-edged sword. Three all-rounders means that you can keep the opposition guessing, both in terms of who's going to break and who's going to press.
It also means that while each has the skill set to perform multiple tasks, there is no specialist. And you felt at times that -- with the threat (real or imagined) of Eriksen -- they might have been better off with someone permanently holding, whether one of the three or possibly a specialist like Badelj. Their movements were not as fluid or as coordinated as we had grown accustomed to and, especially once Denmark got Delaney to sit permanently alongside Schone (who had replaced Christensen) at the half, Denmark had the measure of Croatia in the middle of the park.
3. Knudsen's throws strike fear into Croatia
Before Sunday in Nizhny Novgorod, Knudsen had played just one game for Denmark in the past three years, and that was a friendly to boot. If you knew who he was, it most likely was because you were either Danish, an Ipswich Town supporter or someone who had read about how the Denmark squad had chipped in to rent a private jet so he could fly home to see his newborn baby.
But with Jens Stryger Larsen injured, Age Hareide threw him in at the deep end, and he certainly made an impact. Not so much with his defending or forward runs -- he put in a lot of effort, but there's a reason he's not a regular -- but with that most basic of blunt instruments: throw-ins.
Every time the ball went out on the touchline in the opposing half, up he came with his bionic appendage. It was like a corner kick, regularly reaching the penalty spot and beyond, only with more accuracy and at speed. It struck early, leading directly to the opener and it struck late, sending fear through the Croatian defensive ranks towards the end of the 90 minutes and throughout extra time. Whether he simply has a gift or whether it's something he was taught, it was remarkable that something so basic could prove to be so effective.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.